The Socratic Seminar (sometimes referred to as a Fishbowl Discussion) is my favorite way to stimulate conversation in my English classes. The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that the best way to learn was to engage in conversation, and I wholeheartedly agree! A Socratic seminar plays right into that and enables students to think for themselves rather than filling their heads with my “right” answers.
I always emphasize to my students that we come into the classroom with our own viewpoint and our own lens to look at the world. Rather than trying to get us all to look at literature through the exact same lenses, we utilize our different perspectives to gather meaning from what we are reading. We often discuss the author’s lenses (time period, family life), our unique lenses (big sisters, men, athletes, musicians), and our mutual lenses (students, christians) and how those affect what we read (and then how what we read affects us).
Before the discussion can begin all of the students read the same text and respond to the same open-ended discussion questions in preparation. When they come to class the day of the seminar they are greeted by two circles of desks, an inner and outer circle. The students in the inner circle are given a specific amount of time they are to discuss what they read and dive deeper into the text via the discussion questions. Each student is expected to participate more I keep track of meaningful contributions to the conversation.The outer circle takes notes on the inner circle’s discussion, and I remain silent (even when I really want to join their wonderful discussions).
Socratic Seminars always make me nervous. It is terrifying to give your students complete control of the classroom for a full hour. I always go into them apprehensive and with a back up plan. As soon as the discussion begins I have no idea why I was nervous in the first place. This school is filled with students that consistently exceed my expectations and challenge me. This activity accentuates that, and I am blown away each and every time. These are always the days where I feel so blessed that I get the opportunity to do this as a career and so proud of the way these students pursue excellence on their own accord. I recently sat in awe of my students connecting the literature we read to plays and artwork, all while respectfully responding to each other.
The first time I did a socratic seminar with my Honors English 10 students they were terrified and intimidated. I gave them a very difficult T.S. Eliot poem and nervously set them free to figure it out together. Afterward I asked them what they thought about it and jotted down some of their responses (I promise they actually said these things).
- “No offense to you, Miss Ladwig, but it was more fun to get to hear what our peers thought the poem meant.”
- “It was nice to hear people who don’t usually talk in class. They had good things to say.”
- “I liked that we all had different interpretations of the poem but then we got to see how they all fit together.”
- “I liked that we were all respectful, like we felt comfortable saying that we were confused and we helped each other out.”
- “It was cool that some people had completely different ways they understood the poem, and I got to see where they were coming from.”